Who Needs Miracles Anyway?

January 9, 2019

15 min read


Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16 )

One of the intellectual challenges presented by the Exodus story is how to account for the phenomenon of the plagues. Why did God need miraculous plagues to accomplish the Exodus? If we human beings were presented with the problem of rescuing the Jewish people from the bondage of Egypt, no doubt we would be compelled to exert some sort of force to impose our will on a reluctant Pharaoh. But God doesn't share our limitations. Just as He had no difficulty in hardening Pharaoh's heart, He could have gone in the other direction and softened it, and thus obtained the release of the Jewish people without the need for any suffering on the part of anyone.


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No doubt retribution for the oppression of Jews is a factor, but looking over the troubled history of the Jewish people, and the many occasions when we were in the grip of oppressive bondage to various tyrants, it is difficult to find other instances where our oppressors were made to suffer immediate retribution in the process of our release. Retribution alone is therefore inadequate to account for the phenomenon of the plagues.

Nachmonides (Exodus 13:17) offers an explanation, which not only explains the need for the plagues, but also accounts for the seemingly disproportionate emphasis placed on the remembrance of the Exodus in the commandments of the Torah. As most people are aware, there are quite a few mitzvot that are described by the Torah as having been given to us specifically in order to preserve and commemorate the Exodus.


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His thesis is the following: at the time of the Exodus there were conflicting ideas concerning God among thinking human beings. One stream of thought rejected the idea of God's existence and the notion of a created universe altogether. Another believed that there was a God, and He did indeed create the universe, but He has no notion of what is taking place within it. He exists in the nature of Aristotle's first cause. A third stream believed that God not only created the universe but also knows what is going on but He doesn't care to interfere in the affairs of the world. Only a tiny fraction of mankind gave credence to a world run by Divine providence.

Reference is made to all these strands of thought in the Parsha:

And on that day I shall set apart the land of Goshen on which My people stands, that there shall be no swarm there; so that you will know that I am God in the midst of the land. (Ibid. 8:18)

Orev, the plague of the mixed swarm of animals, establishes that God pays attention to detail, and that Divine Providence is capable of making distinctions between peoples and territories at will.

Moses said to him, "When I leave the city, I shall spread out my hands to God; the thunder will cease and the hail will no longer be, so that you shall know that the earth is God's. (Ibid. 9:18)

The plague of Barad, the fiery hail, was sent to establish God's ability to alter creation at His whim.

For this time I shall send all My plagues against your heart, and upon your servants, and your people, so that you shall know that there is none like Me in all the world. (Ibid. 9:14)

This is a reference to the plague of the death of the first born, which established God's absolute control over all life.


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The essence of Nachmonides' thesis is that God wanted to refute all the false positions regarding His existence and His attributes as a prelude to the Exodus -- not to prove anything to the Egyptians -- but to lay the foundations of proper belief among the Jews. He needed the Exodus to supply Him with a people who would maintain their firm belief in a world directed by Divine Providence as an axiom of life. As we pointed out in previous essays, the spiritual energy that powered the Exodus was the fact that it leads directly to the acceptance of the Torah at Sinai. In the absence of total clarity on the part of the Jewish people regarding the existence of God and the true nature of His Attributes, the prospects for long term Torah observance were bleak at best.

But God had no intention of repeating the miraculous intervention in human affairs that was the hallmark of the Exodus process. Proving His existence repeatedly is antithetical to His policy of allowing man the liberty of selecting for himself through his own free will directed intelligence how he chooses to interpret the world. God's idea was to transform the remembrance of the Exodus experience [and therefore the proof of His existence] into a free will exercise.


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The mechanism of the transformation is the provision of the Mitzvot through which the Exodus is commemorated.

If we assume that God designed the mitzvot to really work, actually producing the results that they were designed to accomplish, which is not an unreasonable assumption in light of the fact that God designed both the mitzvot and the human beings who perform them, then it becomes quite clear how preserving the proofs of God's existence and the knowledge of His attributes becomes a matter of free will. God simply tied the remembrance of the Exodus to the performance of mitzvot.

Any Jew who takes the free will decision to wear his phylacteries, (Tefillin), or to put a Mezuza on his door and observe the commandments of Passover and Tabernacles or any other Mitzvah that was given to commemorate the Exodus, is always able to retain the proof provided by the miracles of the Exodus as part of his living consciousness. But all others will eventually forget or come to doubt the veracity of even these unforgettable events.


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As we know from the Holocaust, the memory and impact of extraordinary historical incidents fades rapidly indeed. Because the Holocaust was such an impossibly unlikely event, some people find it difficult to give it credence a short half century after it was concluded, and this in spite of the extensive records and even pictures available. If this is true of the Holocaust how much more does this apply to the Exodus. The Exodus lives on only in the mitzvot that commemorate it.

We can make use of this thesis of Nachmonides to reach a deeper level of understanding concerning the revelations of the Exodus and the power of Mitzvot in general.


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Most people picture God as a kind of pure intelligence. After all, Jewish tradition teaches that He is incorporeal. He can't really feel things and experience emotions. It is inconceivable to imagine Him being swept away or overwhelmed by the heat of the moment.

If we really ponder this deeply, our impression is largely attributable to the fact that we always experience contact with God through the medium of nature and never directly. When He answers our prayers and heals the sick relative, when we land the job or arrive safely at our destinations, there is always a natural process involved. If we believe that our good fortune comes in answer to our prayers, we look at these phenomena as God altering nature for our benefit.

For us human beings the process of altering nature always requires careful planning and the application of often complex technologies. Strategic planning or developing technologies always requires the objective application of intelligence. As we can only relate to things on our own terms, we tend to impute our own methodology and approach to God.

We relate to the Exodus in terms of problem solving. In our terms God had a problem. He thought it through, applied the technology of the plagues and out popped the solution, the Exodus.


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This view is incorrect. To accomplish the Exodus, God did away with nature altogether. Some of the plagues are obviously not altered natural phenomena. There is no natural way to make fiery hail or thick darkness or to kill people without any sort of trauma or disease. These phenomena represent outright violations of natural law rather than altered natural processes.

With the concealing curtain of nature out of the way, human beings not only had a vision of God, but were able to perceive God Himself. The difference is striking. You can't go into a room to commune with a vision. Visions are not alive. They merely represent something else which is alive. By removing the concealing curtain of nature, God allowed human beings to experience contact with Him as a living personality. They could get to be familiar with his personality, character and emotions. They could learn to relate to Him in human terms.

God spoke to Moses and said to him, "I am YHVH. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as El Shaddai but with My Name YHVH I did not make Myself known to them. (Exodus 6:2-3)

Explains Nachmonides: the name El Shaddai personifies God as the power that bends nature to His will. Thus, while natural processes have no inherent correlation to moral merit, God bent natural law and forced Mother Nature to pour out Her bounty on the Patriarchs.

They were well fed when the rest of the world went hungry, they were able to emerge victorious in battle against enormous odds, and they all grew enormously wealthy. In short they led magically successful lives. All the blessings of the Torah are of this nature and come under the name El Shaddai.

YHVH personifies God as the source of all being. This aspect of God becomes visible only when nature gets out of the way and the entire universe can be clearly perceived as nothing more than Divine Energy. This aspect of God was revealed in the Exodus. Moses never refers to God as El Shaddai because the level of interaction with God that his prophecy introduces can only be enunciated by the Name YHVH.


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We can bring this idea down to earth a little by asking one of the classic questions concerning prayer. If we accept the proof of God supplied by the Exodus as Nachmonides suggests, and take it as fact that God is not only all knowing but that He also cares about our situation, we are going to have a problem with prayer.

For we are then compelled to assume that God is aware of our particular needs and problems, and they concern and even trouble Him. Since God controls everything, it follows that the things we lack and the problems we are struggling with must be understood as His carefully thought out response to our free will decisions or as the testing ground tailor designed to fit our particular individual characters. We are exactly in the situation that we need to be in for our maximum benefit. So why are we asking God to change it? Even more to the point, why do we expect Him to respond to our prayers? Do we know better than God how the world ought to function? How do we expect to change His mind?


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The answer: we relate to God in our prayers as though He were a being with emotions and character. We do not relate to Him as a problem solver. In terms of emotions and character it is easy to see how prayer might be extremely effective. We all react to what people do in terms of how we feel about them. A and B are both unkind to C. I like A very much and I really dislike B. I will find excuses and explanations for A's unkindness. In my mind A is a kind person because I like him. His unkindness towards C does not stem from a defect of character but from some circumstance.

But I will not apply this standard to B. After all, I really don't like B. He is a negative character in my judgment. When I see B being unkind I attribute it to defects in his character not to the accidents of circumstance.

If I could relate to God as though He had character and emotions, then I could attempt to get close to Him just as I attempt to forge an emotional relationship with people I like and admire. Just as feelings are reciprocal as a general rule in human relationships, and the way I feel toward someone is generally a mirror image of the way they feel towards me, so it is with God.

As I dedicate my being to God in prayer and bring myself closer to Him, He also grows closer to me. As God's attitude toward me as a person changes, the way He perceives and relates to my situation automatically alters. Instead of regarding me objectively and figuring out the appropriate life-situation for me from a problem solving perspective, He regards me as a close friend and considers my situation and actions in the way one perceives the situation and actions of those who are dear to Him. If my prayer is affective, God will treat me with affection instead of objectivity.


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The Exodus is a giant step forward and upward in the way God relates to us. God Himself defines His relationship with Abraham as being purposeful rather than personal. When God was about to destroy Sodom, He decided to tell Abraham about it first, and he shares His deliberations about this need for prior disclosure with us:

And God said, "Shall I conceal from Abraham what I do, now that Abraham is surely to become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by him? For I have loved him, because he commands his children and his household after him that they keep the way of God, doing charity and justice, in order that then God might bring upon Abraham that which He had spoken of him." (Genesis 18:17-18)

God Himself thus defines His relationship with Abraham as based on historic purpose. Abraham will instruct his children to keep the ways of God and accomplish God's design in creation, and in return God loves Abraham and shares His intentions with him and consults with him about matters of historic importance. This type of historic purpose based relationship is the opposite of personal. Each side is committed to the achievement of a common goal, and is respectfully consulted as long as he remains committed to working out his share of the common task.

The Exodus is more. In the miracles of the Exodus God committed Himself to a relationship with the Jewish people that has no connection with the historic process and is based on love itself. The very point of the miracles of the Exodus is that they weren't needed to accomplish the historic purpose of releasing the Jewish people from the Egyptian bondage to honor God's promise to Abraham. In shaping a miraculous Exodus, God was informing us, the Jewish people, that He was ready to commit to a relationship that was based on mutual affection rather than just mutual interest.


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This gives us an insight into all mitzvot. Mitzvot should not be regarded exclusively from a problem solving perspective. While no doubt the mitzvot are also designed to fulfill the historic purpose of the Jewish people and establish the Dominion of God on earth, they are much more than that. The mitzvot were also given to us as a means of maintaining the personal contact with God that was established through the miracles of the Exodus. The Mitzvoth are a demonstration of our love for God and of His affection for us. The entire mighty universe is out there for Him to take an interest in, but He takes joy from watching a Jew put on His phylacteries.

But if this is true of Mitzvot in general, how much more does this apply to those that were given specifically to commemorate the Exodus. As the Exodus represents the initiation of the relationship with God for its own sake, just because He loves us and we love Him, the Mitzvot that commemorate it and keep this feeling alive are the most intense focus of this mutual affection. Keeping the Exodus alive is the engine that drives Jewish life.

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